Why should you #Stand4Science?

A worldwide pandemic continues to threaten lives and livelihoods. Scientists are working around the clock to discover new diagnostics, therapies and vaccines. With so much at stake, we must continue to strongly support scientific thinking and development. Biomedical research, from the lab all the way to you, provides critical answers to human health problems. It also provides opportunity through education, jobs and a healthier future for all residents in our community. The launch of Texas Biomed’s #Stand4Science campaign is drawing attention to the need for more support of basic science across the city. We know you will have questions, so here is a list of a few key questions we have received over the years. We hope this gives you some great insight into our institution and why you should #Stand4Science.

What type of research does Texas Biomed do as an infectious disease research institute?

As an infectious disease research institute, Texas Biomed studies a number of infectious diseases, as well as diseases that are considered co-morbidities or underlying conditions for susceptibility to disease, like diabetes, obesity, cancer and aging. Researchers at Texas Biomed include virologists and geneticists who are trying to understand the basic biology of a disease, such as how a microbe infects a person, where it goes in the body, how it replicates and what it impacts in the body. These studies help scientists understand targets for development of therapeutics and vaccines and help scientists understand how to stop disease from happening. Other scientists at the Institute are interested in knowing why certain people are more susceptible to infection and how a person’s immune system reacts, so we have immunologists and microbiologists focused on understanding the human system’s response to a microbe, and we have scientists working with partners worldwide to directly identify and test diagnostics, therapies and vaccines. These scientists work both with and without animals or partner with others to work with people to understand the impact of specific treatments.

How does the Institute directly benefit our local community?

Texas Biomed is making breakthrough discoveries that have resuled in treatments, cures and vaccines for a number of diseases impacting people right here in San Antonio – COVID-19, HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis and more. Scientists have also made discoveries resulting in new treatments and vaccines for Ebola and Zika virus that are global scourges but could become local. These biomedical breakthroughs enable the citizens of San Antonio to live longer, healthier lives.

Additionally, Texas Biomed currently employs nearly 400 people with the goal of employing more than 700 people within the next 10 years. The average pay with benefits at Texas Biomed is nearly $100,000, making Texas Biomed a leading, high-paying employer in the city. And, the Institute is training a new generation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), with educational outreach programs at the K-12 level through postdoctoral training. The Institute reaches nearly 10,000 students annually and partners with the Department of Defense to also train and employ service members and veterans.

Texas Biomed has been an integral part of the fabric of San Antonio’s bioscience industry and the community for more than 80 years.

Where does Texas Biomed get its funding?

Texas Biomed is a nonprofit, and is the case for most nonprofits, the annual operating budget is supported by funding from a variety of sources, with philanthropic support being critical among them. About 70% of revenues in a typical year are from federal grants and contracts (from the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense and other federal agencies). Funds are based on the actual direct costs of the research projects undertaken, but also include an indirect cost supplement meant to assist with the overhead costs required to support the research operation. Unfortunately, the indirect cost supplement is never sufficient to fully cover annual operating costs of the Institute and it does not fund necessary capital investments, such as infrastructure renewal. This is where philanthropic funds help.  While at least break-even results are targeted each year, some years do still see the Institute experience deficits which have been historically covered by short-term bank loans.

Why does Texas Biomed need funding outside of grants, contracts and philanthropy?

Because Texas Biomed is a nonprofit, all funds above and beyond the cost of running the Institute have to be reinvested into the Institute’s infrastructure, science and animal care. Over the past three years, the Institute has launched a bold strategic plan to double the size of the Institute, expand outreach and education programs, build modern, co-laboratory spaces and truly turn Texas Biomed into an international research center. This vision requires additional support from traditional and nontraditional sources.

Capital funding at the Institute for equipment renewal, updating facilities, upgrading infrastructure, etc. has largely been funded through donor support.  Occasionally, the Institute is able to compete for federal capital grants.  Capital funding sources have been intermittent and insufficient to offset an aging campus, as was recognized by the Institute’s 10 Year Strategic Plan, and thus the need for the substantial investment in the campus. Philanthropy is a large part of Texas Biomed’s strategic plan moving forward. However, donors are less inclined to give to infrastructure, as they aim to support more directly brick and mortar and research projects.

Why has Texas Biomed sought city and county funding?

Texas Biomed sought funding because we are an integral part of the public safety fabric of this community. Texas Biomed develops and delivers scientific discoveries to San Antonio and beyond that result in improved health outcomes and disease prevention. For example, we are directly responsible for thousands of San Antonio residents receiving the Pfizer COVID vaccine and the antibody therapeutic to treat COVID, known as Regeneron.

The federal government has deemed Texas Biomed a local “Critical Infrastructure,” a term that refers tothe assets of the United States essential to the nation’s security, public health and safety, economic vitality and way of life.

Public funding would help support our campus infrastructure so that we can make scientific progress while also educating and mentoring thousands of local K-12 and university students in STEM annually. Our outreach mission – in which we work with school districts and organizations – helps bolster San Antonio’s goal of improving science education so that students are interested in STEM fields. Texas Biomed also contributes to the local biotech economy (with an average wage plus benefits of almost $100,000) so that our local students have reason to stay in San Antonio to work and live.

Why does the Institute use animals in its research?

While some research questions may be adequately addressed using cell cultures, tissue studies or computer models (which we also employ at Texas Biomed and the Southwest National Primate Research Center), research with animals continues to be critical for the advancement of human health. Disease processes are complex, involving multiple physiological processes and multiple organ systems that simply require the use of complex models. Less than 1% of all animals used in research are primates. Work with these animals is important to understanding human health and disease, and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration agrees. Before human trials can begin to test new drugs and vaccines, the FDA requires animal research data be provided in most cases.

Virtually every major advance in medical knowledge and treatment has involved research using animal models. Animal research has saved lives, extended life expectancy and improved the quality of life for both humans and animals by enabling scientists to conduct critical experiments that identified ways to prevent, treat and cure disease.

Texas Biomedical Research Institute’s Southwest National Primate Research Center has a long-standing commitment to treating its animals humanely and with the highest regard for their well-being. SNPRC works closely with regulatory agencies to determine best practices to enhance care provided to the primates, for the sake of the animals and the quality of the research programs.

How many monkeys does the Institute have, and why are so many needed for research?

The Institute maintains a colony of roughly 2,500 nonhuman primates. There is actually a shortage of nonhuman primates in research currently in the U.S. The Southwest National Primate Research Center is a national resource for scientists studying a range of diseases. Researchers need access to a diversity of animals, age ranges, sexes, health conditions, and other factors. So, while some animals are kept directly for scientific research purposes, others are part of a breeding program so that there is a supply of diverse animals for future research.

What type of housing conditions do the animals live in? Is it safe and are the animals healthy?

Texas Biomed utilizes a variety of housing structures, including the open-air corral. Almost all of the primates are housed in groups. They spend much of their time interacting socially, including grooming each other. This rich social environment is important for the well-being of all primates, and is particularly critical for developing infants.

Has the Institute been fined for animal issues?

Texas Biomedical Research Institute (then known as the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research) paid a fine to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) of $25,714 in 2012. This was a fine imposed due to two separate animal housing incidents in 2009 and 2010. This was not the result of litigation but was a fine imposed by USDA. In each incident, the Institute experienced a malfunction of its primary enclosures that resulted in an animal getting outside of its primary enclosure. In the 2009 incident, an animal experienced weather-related stress. It received immediate medical attention upon discovering it was outside of the enclosure but ultimately had to be euthanized. In the 2010 case, animals were not shifted from one area to another properly, and two baboons caused injury to an employee. The employee received immediate medical attention and the animals were simply placed back in their enclosure. In both incidents, corrective action was taken immediately.

Employees receive regular annual training on standard operating procedures for animal enclosures, and the Institute continuously looks to improve its animal housing standards. In fact, the Institute is investing more than $17 million in a new animal care facility, breaking ground in 2022.

The Institute is monitored annually by the USDA Office of Lab Animal Welfare. Each year, the inspectors review the Institute’s standard operating procedures, participate in a site visit to the facilities and review any incidents where animal welfare could be of potential concern. The Institute has not received any fines since 2012, which were related to the 2009 and 2010 incidents more than a decade ago. The Institute publishes the findings on the SNPRC (Southwest National Primate Center) website each year. The last published information was the 2021 February winter storm. And, while there were cases of frostbite reported in some animals, there was no loss of life, and the inspectors noted the exceptional care provided by the team in a highly unusual circumstance.

Didn’t animals escape from the facility?

On the afternoon of April 14, 2018, four baboons left their enclosure, and three of them breached perimeter fencing around the Institute. One baboon returned to the enclosure soon after leaving. The remaining three baboons were captured by SNPRC’s highly-skilled animal capture team within 20-30 minutes of leaving their enclosure. These baboons are part of the animal breeding colony or were awaiting study and posed no threat to people’s health.

The baboons are housed in an open-air enclosure that is surrounded by perimeter walls that fold inward to preclude the animals from jumping out. This enclosure has been used for more than 35 years. The animal care staff determined that a 55-gallon barrel was in an upright position and just close enough to the wall that the animals had an opportunity to climb on one and get out of the housing structure. Upon noticing the animals on top of the enclosure, the animal care team immediately removed the barrels from the enclosure and alerted the animal capture team. Implementation of the barrels as an enrichment tool used to help mimic foraging behaviors was reviewed by the animal care team and USDA during their last inspection and found to be a valuable component of the enrichment program. However, the team has removed them from use.

This incident did not result in a fine from USDA, as the incident was deemed to have been handled appropriately and was not due to inattentiveness to animal welfare.

Why does the Institute have USDA citations?

We have had some unique events, several of which occurred more than a decade ago. Each case presented a separate set of circumstances, driven in large part by the fact that we provide large, rich social environments for these animals, because we believe that is the best way for them to live. When events do occur, we self-report and take immediate corrective action to ensure the safety of the animals and our staff. We have adjusted processes, training or standard operating procedures when necessary.

We care for more than 2500 animals. Unforeseen events are incredibly uncommon. We take every possible precaution to safeguard against these events and work closely with regulatory agencies to determine best practices. The Institute continuously seeks to enhance care provided to the primates, for the sake of the animals and the quality of the research programs.

USDA inspects our facility annually, and we self-report individual events to USDA immediately after taking pre-emptive corrective action. Details of past year’s inspection reports are on our website.